Monday, February 27, 2012

An Interview with Laura Purdie Salas

It may not be spring yet, but you can start thinking about it with a new book called A LEAF CAN BE (Millbrook) by poet and prolific nonfiction writer Laura Purdie Salas.  This verdant picture book illustrated by Violeta Dabija  captured my attention because I had a similar idea to write about leafy jobs, which I can now put aside, because I think Salas’s rendition will become a classroom classic. Being long-winded myself, I am fascinated by her ability to capture so much in so few words. Here is just a bit of the text:
A leaf is a leaf—
a bit of a tree.
But when cool days come chasing,
it can also be a...
Lake glider…
Wind rider…
Pile grower…
Hill glow-er…
Frost catcher…
Moth matcher.

So, I caught up with Laura and here is what she has to say about writing, poetry, nonfiction and more...
PT: When writing nonfiction, some people believe the more details and information the better, but poetry in some ways is just the opposite – simplicity is key. How do you maintain that balance?

LPS: You’re so right. I fight the impulse to stuff in too much information constantly. I want to share every single wonderful fact I learn! But then I would overwhelm and bore kids. To bring focus, I think about the one thing I really want the reader to leave with--a fact or question or feeling…but only one thing. And then I brutally cut what doesn’t help a kid get that one thing.

For A LEAF CAN BE…, the thought I want kids to leave with is: “Wow! I never knew leaves did all that stuff!” I think in many ways a nonfiction poem or rhyming nonfiction book can be a teaser for a certain topic, inspiring kids to want to know more about something in the future. But it has to be wonderful enough to stand on its own, too, even if the child never explores that topic further.


PT: Have you ever started a project in verse and found that prose worked better, or vice versa? If so, can you give an example?
LPS: Usually, I envision a project right from the start as a poem or a collection or a prose picture book. But sometimes I’m wrong. Usually that’s when I think I have a picture book idea, but it turns out I don’t have enough plot. Then I delete it from my “picture book ideas” list and move it to my “poem ideas” list. I tend to realize the problem in the thinking and planning stage, before I start actually writing. None of my published books have changed format that drastically, though STAMPEDE! POEMS TO CELEBRATE THE WILD SIDE OF SCHOOL did start out as a collection geared toward older elementary kids. (That story is here: http://www.childrensliteraturenetwork.org/magazine/bookscope/2012/stampede-poems-to-celebrate-the-wild-side-of-school/)


I did try rhyming nonfiction manuscripts for a few other ideas I want to write about before I hit on LEAF. But they just didn’t work. I tried one about how the layer of limestone near Mt. Everest’s peak used to be on the bottom of the sea. I love that story and have many prose nonfiction versions of it that have never sold. When I decided to write a rhyming nonfiction book, I thought that topic might have another chance. But the science and the vocabulary were too complex to make work in the simple rhyming framework I wanted to use. Darn!

Anytime it feels like the verse is becoming the point of the story, I know I’m in trouble. Plot and character (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, in my opinion) are the keys. If the use of verse is overshadowing them or forcing them on a death march, I have to get rid of the rhyme. It hurts, but by the time I make that decision, the manuscript is usually so painfully bad that it’s a relief!

PT: In the idea stage, what comes first, poetry or facts? Or put another way, what happens first - do you say to yourself I want to write about leaves, or do you hear the cadence of “A leaf can be…” in your head, or is it some combination or alchemy of the two?

LPS: Great question. Almost always, for me, the facts, the topics, come first. When my brain sizzles from some amazing fact, I know I want to write about it in some way. For A LEAF CAN BE…, I knew I wanted to write a rhyming nonfiction picture book, and I went looking for topics. I came across a poem I had written about Honduran tent bats and how they use leaves. Then I started researching leaves and all the cool things they do. I didn’t start thinking of words and rhyme and meter, though, hearing phrases or rhythms in my head, until my head was stuffed full of amazing facts.



PT: Do you feel that in general editors are open to lyrical prose in nonfiction? And what advice would you give to writers who would like to incorporate more verse or lyrical prose in their nonfiction?

LPS: That’s a good question. I think they’re more open to it than straight poetry, that’s for sure! Young kids love rhyme, and they also love to learn things. So if you can mix those two things, I think you can make a book that really appeals to kids, parents, and teachers.


But…it’s not easy. For writers who would like to try it, I suggest reading a ton a great children’s poetry, both rhyming and non-rhyming. See Sylvia Vardell’s blog, Poetry for Children, and search for her Best Poetry Books of the Year for the past several years. That’s a great place to start.


Then look specifically at rhyming nonfiction picture books. Joyce Sidman’s Swirl by Swirl, Linda Ashman’s Castles, Caves & Honeycombs, and Lola Schaefer’s An Island Grows are just three examples I love.
 
And, of course, get feedback. If you’re in a great critique group, use it to get honest opinions about how to improve your work. For people who can’t get everything they need from their crit groups, or who don’t have one, Lisa Bullard and I run Mentors for Rent (MentorsForRent.com), an hourly mentoring service for kids’/ya writers. We often work with writers on rhyming manuscripts—it’s a really tough format to get right.


PT: You are a prolific writer working with several publishers, and I was excited to see that you have written a guide for people who want to write for the educational market. What bit of advice would you offer someone who would like to break into that market?

LPS: Writing for the educational market is a big chunk of my writing life. I learn so much cool stuff about topics that I had no idea were so interesting: Mealworms? Snowmobiling? Charles Drew? None of these topics wowed me at first, but they sucked me in! And this market can provide a small, steady income and stream of publishing credits, which is also great.
Basically, getting work in this market is like job-hunting. You send out an introductory packet that includes a cover letter, possibly your resume, and some writing samples. You tell the editor why you would like to write for that publisher specifically, and you convince her that you are professional, hard-working, and congenial. And then you follow up every so often until you get your first (or next) assignment. I used to teach an online course in this, but then I put everything I knew about it into a print textbook (http://www.laurasalas.com/present/WCN_SG/desc.html). It’s not that difficult to approach editors, but it can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to start.

PT: Thank you, Laura, for the great advice and insight into your writing process.  Can't wait to see what comes next!  

18 comments:

  1. Thanks, Peggy, for having me. It's always fun when an interview makes me realize something new about the way I work!

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    1. Let me know when the next book comes out. There will be a space waiting for you.

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  2. Nice job Laura. Peggy, thank you for asking the right questions!

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    1. Thanks. I just ask about stuff I'm interested in and hope others will be too. Glad you liked it. Stop by again.

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  3. I continue to be fascinated by the process of writing for the educational market, and by how prolific Laura remains - and what fun topics she covers! I'm glad to know it's also interesting for her... and someday that bit about the limestone will come up somewhere...

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Tanita. And I agree, I think we'll be reading about Laura's limestone soon.

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  4. I love that your blog sent me here, Laura, because I learned more about you. I love this: "But it has to be wonderful enough to stand on its own, too, even if the child never explores that topic further" To create an interest in students, the book is like a little spark & then the child can go further if wished. It's very interesting to hear some of what you do to keep in the market. Thank you Peggy for a terrific interview.

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    1. I'm glad you came by to read Laura's interview. Stop by again.

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  5. A great interview: thanks to Peggy for asking great questions and Laura for her fantastic answers!

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    1. Thank you Laurie, I'm glad you liked it.

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  6. Thanks, you guys! And I probably should have clarified that A LEAF CAN BE... wasn't written for the educational market (those books are assigned by editors and published in series). I wrote A LEAF CAN BE... and then looked for an editor who would love it at a publisher who would do a great job with it--and was thrilled when Carol at Millbrook said yes! So even though it will be sold and used (I hope it will be, anyway) primarily in classrooms, this book isn't an educational market book. But Peggy noticed my workbook and asked about that. Just wanted to avoid any confustion--I should have said this in my answers--oops!

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    1. Thanks for clarifying, Laura. I should have done that too.

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  7. I learned so much about the writing process through this interview - I'm going to share it with my students so that they can appreciate all the work and pondering that goes into the writing process.

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    1. I'm so glad to hear you'll share Laura's writing process with your students. I often think those day dreamers in class will be the writers of our future.

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  8. I think I've already fallen in love with the book just by reading the fascinating reviews about A Leaf Can Be.. and now this beautiful interview! How I wish I could find this book soon in our library. :) Will pin this in my Pinterest board. :)

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    1. Have fun with this book. It will become a classic.

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  9. Hi Laura,

    My young daughter first opened your book, A Leaf Can Be, while waiting with me in a very long line at the post office at 4:30 p.m. (Yikes!) She started reading it aloud, and it wasn't long before you could hear a pin drop. She and your story held the full house at standing attention. Beautiful!

    I'm a frequent flyer at your site and always, ALWAYS pick up valuable writing advice. Thank you!

    Sending thoughts and prayers for a speedy recovery to your sister, J.P.

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  10. Thanks, Cheryl, for sharing this fantastic story here, and for your good wishes!

    Also, I just realized an error. I called SWIRL BY SWIRL rhyming nonfiction, and it's not. Don't know where my head was! It's nonfiction that I think is a poem. It's lyrical and full of information and wonderful to read. But it doesn't rhyme. Bad memory! Bad! Bad! Sorry about that.

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